Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London

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A Year in Reading: Anna Wiener


I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.

After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.

I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.

I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.

A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.

I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.

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The World-Spanning Humanism of Mohsin Hamid

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Mohsin Hamid’s new novel Exit West begins in an unnamed city fractured by political violence. There, two young people come together as everything around them is breaking apart. Nadia is a cultural rebel who wears a full black robe, “so men don’t fuck with [her]” as she traverses the city on her motorcycle. Saeed is a devoted son who wears “studiously maintained stubble” and passes quiet evenings on the balcony, gazing out at the city rather than immersing himself in it. Before these patient lovers make the exit promised by the novel’s title, and compelled by the tightening grip of civil war, Nadia ventures beyond the city through her phone, which she rides into and over the world, watching “bombs falling, women exercising, men copulating, waves tugging at the sand like the rasping licks of so many mortal, temporary, vanishing tongues.” Registering both brutality and beauty, the planetary sight that Nadia simulates here mirrors that aspired to by Hamid’s powerful book.

The novel traces Nadia and Saeed’s journey from their home city to the island of Mykonos, to London, and finally to the hills of California — a route of escape if not liberation enabled by a series of magical doors, portals that highlight through omission the unrepresentable terror of the passages in between. Progress through them — which is “both like dying and like being born” — is attained not just by the novel’s protagonists but by several people its panoramic vision only ephemerally registers: a man with “dark skin and dark, wooly hair” struggles out of a closet door in Sydney; two Filipina women emerge from a disused door at the rear of a bar in Tokyo; a young woman slips out of a black door in a Tijuana cantina; a Tamil family wanders out of an interior service door below a cluster of “blond-and-glass” luxury towers in Dubai.

“The whole planet,” in the near future inhabited by the novel, “was on the move.” Hamid is interested in the conditions of that movement and in its disparate effects. Exit West evinces the stark divisions of wealth and security that provoke migration, the myriad walls that inhibit it, and the nativism to which it gives rise. But the basic fact of movement, if a cause and consequence of profound violence, also signals, in the novel, the more hopeful potentialities of planetary interconnection. This dialectical sensibility is in keeping with Hamid’s broader oeuvre. Centering on Pakistan and its entanglement in global histories of imperialism and capitalism, his fiction and essays — from the novel Moth Smoke, to the recent collection of dispatches Discontent and Its Civilizations — have explored the relationship between here and there, self and other, in a way that holds in tension difference and sameness, contradiction and affiliation. Exit West elaborates this conceptual focus — tracing the fissures in human community and global space, and reflecting on the possibility of their transcendence.

The “dramatic monologue” that comprises Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is staged at an outdoor café in a busy Lahore marketplace. It is delivered by Changez — a young Pakistani university lecturer and possible militant, who formerly held an elite position at an eminent Manhattan financial firm — to a silent and ambiguously motivated American listener. Over a long and increasingly tense meal, Changez instructs his companion in the historical relationship between Pakistan and the United States. He details the continuities between the long history of the British empire in South Asia and the more recent expression of U.S. power in the region under the sign of a “War on Terror.” And he impresses as well the intimate connections, in the current conjuncture, between perpetual war and pervasive neoliberal depredation. Changez’s didactic address, though, is met by his mute guest not with affirmation but with the implied threat of assassination. Whatever its pedagogical impact on the reader, the novel dramatizes empathic failure and the persistence — in the consciousness of the west — of geographic and historical blindness.

Continuing the project of redressing this myopia, Hamid’s third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, illuminates the unevenly borne human and ecological costs of capitalist “development.” Appropriating the form of a self-help book, and joining it to the more traditional apparatus of the bildungsroman, the novel is narrated in the second person. “You” begin the story as a child in a poor South Asian village and end it on your hospital death bed, having accumulated — and then lost — a personal fortune via the purification and commoditization of municipal water. The use of the second person conflates the consumer of the tale and its anonymous hero. But the novel’s periodic shifts in perspective work to refuse any easy sense of identification between reader and protagonist. For the bulk of the narrative, as when you and your family are conveyed by an overcrowded bus “from rural remoteness to urban centrality,” we regard the world through your eyes. In certain moments, though, as when you are stooped in grief at your brother’s funeral, we observe you from above, through the lens of a drone — that essential technology of occupation that not only sees but also delimits and even negates the lives of those below.

The unmanned aerial vehicles that hover above the action in How to Get Filthy Rich, surveying and surveilling the world, are ever-present too in Exit West. “Unseen but never far from people’s minds,” they act as a metaphor for the totalizing but often invisible powers that govern us. Like capital or the state, the drone sees but cannot be seen; it is everywhere and nowhere; it generalizes vulnerability but is itself seemingly invulnerable; the “security” it avows obscures the insecurity it produces. When the Tamil family takes their first tentative steps into the Dubai sunlight, they are captured by a “small quadcopter drone hovering fifty meters above,” which alerts security officers to their presence. As the efficient trajectory of the “uniformed men” intersects with their own, the family are “intercepted and led away, apparently bewildered, or overawed, for they held hands and did not resist or scatter or run.”

Passing through one door and then another, alighting in Greece and then England, Nadia and Saeed escape the twinned fates of detention and deportation. But they continue to be tracked by the same “flying robots” that patrolled the city of their birth. As the ubiquity of the drone reveals, the line that marks the boundary between the rich countries—who “were building walls and fences and strengthening their borders” — and the poor ones is redrawn within the societies of the former. On Mykonos, Nadia and Saeed occupy the periphery of one of the migrant camps, which itself lies beyond the outskirts of the island’s old town — a popular tourist attraction that the migrants are discouraged, through the implied threat of police reprisal, from visiting. In London, a combination of government forces and private legions launch a campaign to “reclaim Britain for Britain,” to mend the “black holes in the fabric of the Nation.” Confined to one such black hole, the migrant zone of once-posh Chelsea and Kensington, Nadia and Saeed again feel their world shrinking. Surrounded by “soldiers and armored vehicles,” they are monitored from above by helicopter, drone, and surveillance balloon. When the government cuts the electricity in migrant-occupied neighborhoods, the existence of two Londons — one dark and one light — is clarified. Nadia and Saeed have escaped one civil war, but there is, they increasingly come to appreciate, no exit from the civil war that is also a world war — the essential antagonism between the possessed and the dispossessed, the rights-bearing citizen and the rightless denizen. Nadia wonders “whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.”

The enduring precariousness of the migrants’ lives, though, does not preclude the genesis of new social forms. The camps on Mykonos are inhabited by people “falling within a band of brown that ranged from dark chocolate to milky tea,” who speak “in a cacophony that was the languages of the world.” In this context, “everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was.” This emergent understanding of difference as sameness is deepened, for Nadia especially, in London. There, she and Saeed find themselves resident in a sprawling house — evidently absent its lawful owners but convivially occupied by Nigerians, Somalis, and others “from as far west as Guatemala and as far east as Indonesia.” The house’s council meetings, while dull, represent “something new in her mind, the birth of something new” — the idea of a polity founded on the exigencies of mutual survival, wherein difference is the source of the universal rather than its violent corollary.

In our own time—of emboldened ethno-nationalisms—the political realization of this demotic cosmopolitanism often feels very far away. But the nativist responds to the migrant with such violence because they see their own insecurity, whether actual or latent, reflected in the presence of those who have already lost so much. And the possibility thus exists that fear will give way to solidaristic recognition. This alternative route is hinted, in Exit West, by the evolving confrontation between dark London and light. As the weeks pass, the “natives and their forces stepped back from the brink”:
Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process.
The enlightened refusal of outright genocide, however, does not preface a radical transformation of London’s social and economic geography. The migrants are not welcomed to light London but corralled in the formerly protected greenbelt around the city, which has been opened up to the construction of new urban settlements and named the “London Halo.” Resident in a worker camp, circled by a security fence, Nadia and Saeed trade their labor — clearing land, assembling prefabricated dwellings — for “a home on forty square meters and a connection to all the utilities of modernity.”

This “forty meters and a pipe” is an obvious evocation of the “forty acres and a mule” promised (but never granted) to the formerly enslaved in the closing stages of the U.S. Civil War. It summons, in other words, another deferred emancipation — an extant history that Nadia and Saeed learn more about when they pass through one final door and arrive on the west coast of North America, in the new city of Marin, where they fashion a shanty in the vacant hills above town. As the fog descends and lifts, Nadia and Saeed drift apart, surely but not violently, and toward new companions. Saeed is drawn to the daughter of a local preacher, a woman descended “from the human beings who had been brought from Africa to this continent centuries ago as slaves.” Of that history, Saeed comes to understand that “society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils.” The link Saeed feels to this particular narrative of dislocation, of loss and struggle, is derived in part from a newfound spiritual devotion. In prayer, Saeed “touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss united humanity, every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness.” In such instances — as when Hamid writes that “we are all migrants through time” — the political contradictions Exit West has so vividly rendered are dissolved by the revelation of transcendental humanness. The universality the novel more urgently invokes, though, is grounded in the contingent and contested terrain of social life.

Our contemporary moment is marked by a crisis of futurity — a collective inability to imagine any alternative to the supposed “end of history,” the eternal neoliberal present. But by the final pages of Exit West, in the wake of an apocalypse that “was not apocalyptic,” this malaise is yielding to “plausible desirable futures…unimaginable previously, but imaginable now.” These other worlds are made audible, in Marin, by the flourishing of new musical ensembles — “humans with humans, humans with electronics, dark skin with light with gleaming metal with matte plastic” — and given a concrete political shape by nascent regional assemblies, experimental democratic formations that exist in opposition to “those other entities for which some humans were not human enough to exercise suffrage.”

The polyglot soundscape of the migrant camps on Mykonos is “what one might hear if they were a communications satellite” — a planetary perspective that recalls the one Nadia first realizes virtually on her phone, and that Exit West itself claims. Orbiting earth, Hamid’s novel maps the divides that structure the current global order. But it also charts one necessary future, the advent of what Aimé Césaire called a “humanism made to the measure of the world.”

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